At last: a rational thinker at “The Stone”

Over the years I’ve repeatedly documented the wooly thinking, religious apologetics, and general mushbrain-y analysis at “The Stone”, a philosophy blog at the New York Times. But very rarely the editors will deign to let a rationalist or—horrors!—an atheist have a column. And today it’s Duke University philosopher Alex Rosenberg, who is about the most “militant” atheist—and “hardest” determinist—I know. You may have read his 2011 book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, a defense of scientism that had the honor of being named “the worst book of the year” by Leon Wieseltier. I thought it was a pretty good book, though a bit tendentious, but certainly much better than all the tripe that passes as criticism of “scientism” (Wieseltier has purveyed some of that stomach lining).

Rosenberg’s theme is the fallibility of our thinking that consciousness produces absolutely accurate information about our actions, thoughts, and motivations. He maintains that this is wrong: just as when we exercise our “theory of mind,” imputing beliefs, intentions, or motivations to others, so that faculty is equally fallible when turned upon ourselves. Certainly our feeling of being a free agent consciously willing an action, and thereby bringing it about, is wrong, as many experiments have no shown, and as I’ve discussed endlessly. Rosenberg goes a bit further:

We never have direct access to our thoughts. As Peter Carruthers first argued, self-consciousness is just mind reading turned inward.

How do we know this? Well, Hume would have answered that introspection tells us so. But that won’t wash for experimental scientists. They demand evidence. Some of it comes from the fMRI work that established the existence of a distinct mind-reading module, more from autistic children, whose deficits in explaining and predicting the behavior of others come together with limitations on self-awareness and self-reporting of their own motivations. Patients suffering from schizophrenia manifest deficiencies in both other-mind reading and self-mind reading. If these two capacities were distinct one would expect at least some autistic children and schizophrenics to manifest one of these capacities without the other.

That we read our own minds the same way we read other minds is evident in what cognitive science tells us about consciousness and working memory — the dual imagistic and silent-speech process that we employ to calculate, decide, choose among options “immediately before the mind.”

. . . The upshot of all these discoveries is deeply significant, not just for philosophy, but for us as human beings: There is no first-person point of view.

Our access to our own thoughts is just as indirect and fallible as our access to the thoughts of other people. We have no privileged access to our own minds. If our thoughts give the real meaning of our actions, our words, our lives, then we can’t ever be sure what we say or do, or for that matter, what we think or why we think it.

Philosophers’ claims that by reflecting on itself thought reliably reveals our nature, grounds knowledge, gives us free will, endows our behavior with moral value, are all challenged. And the threat doesn’t stem from some tendentious scientistic worldview. It emerges from the detailed understanding of the mind that cognitive science and neuroscience are providing.

There’s considerable merit in this argument, though I’ll be thinking more about it. But to the extent that Rosenberg is right, it puts the lie to the claim that introspection itself can give us truths as reliable as those obtained by “scientific” methods: empirical observation, prediction, and corroboration by others. Introspection is by definition an uncorroborated process, and if you make a claim about the nature of reality based on introspection alone, there’s no reason to trust it. Even when you say, “I’m hungry”, you may be wrong; the only truth there is that your consciousness tells you that you feel hungry. But of course your eyes could be bigger than your stomach.  One of my favorite quotes, by former pastor Mike Aus, expresses this nicely:

When I was working as a pastor I would often gloss over the clash between the scientific world view and the perspective of religion. I would say that the insights of science were no threat to faith because science and religion are “different ways of knowing” and are not in conflict because they are trying to answer different questions. Science focuses on “how” the world came to be, and religion addresses the question of “why” we are here. I was dead wrong. There are not different ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing, and those are the only two options in this world.


  1. Copyleft
    Posted July 18, 2016 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    Correct. Introspection by itself cannot produce knowledge; it can only produce conclusions (i.e., opinions). Wasn’t the battle between ‘rationalism’ and ’empiricism’ settled many centuries ago, in Ancient Greece?

    • Somite
      Posted July 18, 2016 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      The war raged on until the English natural philosophers formalized empiricism. There are still skirmishes with those philosophers that decry scientism and go on about the limits of science.

      My favorite short reading on the evolution of philosophy into science is this explanation of Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword:

      • Reginald Selkirk
        Posted July 18, 2016 at 11:27 am | Permalink

        That is a good read. Thanks.

    • Posted July 18, 2016 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      It was in my view settled implicitly by Galileo, who showed one needed *both*.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted July 18, 2016 at 11:56 am | Permalink

      I would at least give introspection credit for producing hypotheses. These then need to be tested further. Einstein did pretty well in this department.

      • Posted July 19, 2016 at 11:57 am | Permalink

        Right – the first is the rationalist (or some of it) aspect of science, the second part of the empiricist.

    • q-Tim
      Posted July 18, 2016 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      However, we often have to rely on introspection to produce knowledge, because there’s simply no other way. E.g. if one studies the optical blind spot in the human eye (an example often used by Sam Harris), they have to rely on their (or their research subjects’) introspective abilities to report their first-person experience.

      • peepuk
        Posted July 18, 2016 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

        Sam Harris uses the blind spot as an example of the unreliability of introspection.

        For normal people it’s impossible to find the blind spot by introspection.

        • Torbjörn Larsson
          Posted July 19, 2016 at 6:52 am | Permalink

          Good point of Harris’s!

  2. GBJames
    Posted July 18, 2016 at 10:45 am | Permalink


    • jimroberts
      Posted July 18, 2016 at 12:27 pm | Permalink


  3. Scott Draper
    Posted July 18, 2016 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    “Even when you say, “I’m hungry”, you may be wrong”

    Absolutely. A peptic ulcer can simulate hunger. I often can’t tell the difference until I eat everything in sight and the hunger remains. Then it’s time for Pepto-Bismol.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted July 18, 2016 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      I have noticed that when I am very tired, I can’t tell if I am hungry or not.

      • Posted July 18, 2016 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

        I sometimes confuse thirst for hunger.

        When I am very tired but need to stay awake, I often feel like I need to eat. Perhaps this is because my body knows it needs energy or because the act of eating helps keep me up, or perhaps both.

    • Posted July 18, 2016 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

      I was going to quote and comment on that also.

      Heck, even boredom can convincingly masquerade as hunger.

  4. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted July 18, 2016 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    “There is no first-person point of view.”

    So what then are we to make of Harris’s charge that compatibilism ignores people’s first-person “felt experience” in order to focus on third-person accounts of agency? Here Rosenberg seems to be implying that third-person is the only valid approach.

    • Shea B
      Posted July 18, 2016 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      I think Rosenberg means to say that there is no such thing as an infallibly-accurate, unmediated first-person point of view. In other words, we don’t have perfect access to the inner workings of our brains. We tell ourselves cohesive stories about our own lives, behaviors, and motivations, but the reality is that all of our mental activity is happening in chemical and physical processes that we do not have direct access to (and that we would not understand even if we could “see” them).

      All of us (Rosenberg included) live our lives through a misleading/illusory “first-person point of view,” but we should not forget that it is misleading/illusory. I think this actually fits nicely with Sam Harris’ point. When we actually pay close attention to the contents of consciousness, we notice that things are not what they seem. Thoughts arise into our field of conscious awareness without being brought about by active will.

      • Posted July 18, 2016 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

        Only a few philosophers believe that people have infallible access to our own mental activity. Most regular people don’t believe that either. Literature and movies, not to mention Freudian psychology, generally hold otherwise.

        If that’s Rosenberg’s only point, it’s old news. Especially to philosophers. I think he’s saying something new – and wrong.

        Our knowledge of some of our own mental states isn’t *just* like our knowledge of others’. It goes through a shorter causal chain. When you’re happy, this tends to cause certain facial expressions, which tend to cause certain visual information in my brain, which tends to cause the thought “that person is happy.” When I’m happy, the nerve signals need only go from the limbic system and left prefrontal cortex to the rest of the cortex (to oversimplify).

        Of course, all the evidence counts, both internal and external. That is the big fat grain of truth in Rosenberg’s point. But shorter causal chains tend (data point for data point) to be more reliable than longer ones. So it takes a large-ish amount of third-person evidence to outweigh the first-person evidence of noticing I’m happy.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted July 18, 2016 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

          Your point about shorter causal chains is a good one. But I wonder if they’re actually as short as a direct neural connection from limbic system to forebrain.

          My personal sense of how I experience emotion is that it’s more physiological than neurological. I know what I’m feeling because my body literally feels it, via changes in heart rate, breathing patterns, hormone levels, gooseflesh, and a host of other symptoms. There’s no light that lights up saying “I’m happy”; rather, I infer it from my physiological state, like reading a kind of internal polygraph that takes some skill to interpret.

          Granted, this is more reliable than reading other people’s body language, simply because we have access to more channels of information about our own emotional state. But there’s still a necessary step of inference involved.

          Or so it seems to me, from introspection.

          • Posted July 19, 2016 at 7:06 pm | Permalink


            Fair enough. I actually think awareness of emotions often proceeds through two channels at once, one of which is the physiological channel you describe. But let that pass, and consider sensation – “qualia” – instead. I wrote a little about them on another website. I had another axe to grind there, but I think what I say points to evidence, if any is needed, that self-consciousness goes beyond reading one’s own body language.

        • Posted July 18, 2016 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

          I agree. I would not dismiss my own introspective assessment of why I am feeling a certain way or why I am doing a certain thing. I’m not certain what better information about those things there could be.

          • Posted July 19, 2016 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

            Well, it might be nice to have the same visual acuity but with less colour metamers.

            (Not that we seem to fully understand what colour is *for*.)

        • Posted July 19, 2016 at 11:59 am | Permalink

          Lots of philosophers (D. Chalmers, formerly F. Jackson, etc.) act as if we are infallible about “qualia”. This is where the odious “zombie intuition” comes from.

        • peepuk
          Posted July 20, 2016 at 9:41 am | Permalink

          Alex Rosenberg makes a lot stronger claim:
          “There is no first-person point of view”.

          “But shorter causal chains tend (data point for data point) to be more reliable than longer ones. So it takes a large-ish amount of third-person evidence to outweigh the first-person evidence of noticing I’m happy”.

          In this case Rosenberg argues that the same system interprets the external and internal signal. So, in this case, only the reliability of the system is relevant, not the path of the signal to the system.

          Most people believe in God. So, by your reasoning, evidence for atheism needs to take a large-ish amount of third-person evidence that God doesn’t exist to outweigh first-person evidence of all these people who believe in a God? I don’t think so.

          • Posted July 21, 2016 at 6:06 am | Permalink

            God doesn’t exist, and the first-personal experiences that people interpret that way must be caused by something else. So by analogy … happiness doesn’t exist? Really??

            Regarding the first point, the reliability of the path/signal to the system is always relevant.

    • peepuk
      Posted July 18, 2016 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      Sam Harris only says that compatibilism misrepresents what people normally mean by free will. Not that it is a valid approach to knowledge.

    • Posted July 18, 2016 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think Rosenberg is denying that people experience a sense of a first-person point of view. Just that there isn’t actually one. Which is pretty similar to what Sam often says when talking about meditation.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted July 18, 2016 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

        Right, but when it comes to free will, Harris seems to think this illusory first-person perspective is something important that needs to be addressed. At least that’s how it came across in the podcast.

        But maybe this is the wrong thread for that discussion.

        • Posted July 18, 2016 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

          I’m persuaded by the points compatibilists make, so I’m not defending Sam’s incompatibilism, but I do think he only sees the first-person perspective as something important that needs to be addressed in terms of getting people to realize it’s not what it seems.

  5. Jeremy Tarone
    Posted July 18, 2016 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never seen this issue before, at least not put like that. I’ve read what Jerry writes on free will, Harris and others, but I’ve never really considered this particular aspect, and I find it fascinating yet also very disconcerting.

    I’m going to have to think about this a lot and consider the implications.

    • Shea B
      Posted July 18, 2016 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      Rosenberg’s book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality has lots to say about the implications…It’s certainly well worth a read.

      • Posted July 18, 2016 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

        Losing god is the easy part of scientistic atheism. Rosenberg’s book is about the hard parts.

      • Jeremy Tarone
        Posted July 18, 2016 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

        Thank you for the recommendation, I’ll check it out.

  6. Sastra
    Posted July 18, 2016 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    The folk intuition that we have a privileged and infallible access to our own thoughts and motivations is also I think balanced out by the common recognition that no, people can indeed be wrong about what they think they know, want, or believe. Because we’re particularly good at detecting flaws in self-knowledge when it comes to other people — and we live in a culture which emphasizes the value of introspection.

    A man insists he loves his wife more than anything, but continually beats her whenever she fails to instantaneously live up to his expectations.

    A woman writes in her diary that walking along in the surf and sand is what makes her happiest — but she hasn’t been to the beach in 2 years and lives within 10 miles of Lake Michigan.

    A teenager who has been dumped by their crush is sure that they are very, very hungry for sweets and snacks because they have a high metabolism.

    A person who claims that they live for God and Jesus hasn’t been to church in months, has never actually read the Bible, and begins prayers with “Shit, don’t let …”

    And so forth. Most people recognize that we often fool ourselves. Hey, the whole “the terrorist wasn’t REALLY devout” line pretty much depends on that.

  7. Adam
    Posted July 18, 2016 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    A thousand percent correct! Great piece.

  8. q-Tim
    Posted July 18, 2016 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    In fact, as Sam Harris pointed out time and again, when introspection is done properly, it can cut through many cognitive illusions, including free will and many others. But it requires a proper technique and training, which can be provided by mindfulness meditation.

    While meditation is not easy, and requires lots of time and persistence, at some point you start seeing that thoughts—either linguistic or visual—just keep bubbling up absolutely out of nowhere.

    Or, if you ‘feel hungry’ and try to find and carefully examine what it is, what does it exactly entail to feel hungry, it falls apart into individual sensations, very unstable and totally meaningless (that’s why mindfulness techniques are pretty useful for pain management and such).

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted July 19, 2016 at 7:05 am | Permalink

      I’ll wait until those who argue for “meditation”, whatever that is, show that it it works for anything at all.

      [So far there have been claims that it _may_ approximate a rest. I.e. you can take a catnap or you can meditate, same medical effects, but I don’t think the experiments are very persuasive, lots of observer bias possible.

      But I have a lot of training in how to get to sleep. Why bother with learning an alternate when it isn’t any better?]

  9. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted July 18, 2016 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Interestingly, while some novels with an unreliable first person narrator have one who is deliberately lying (Agatha Christie’s “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”), in others the unreliable first person narrator is actually not very perceptive and the reader has to cut through the fog of the narrator’s confused thinking (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Lolita” being the most obvious examples.)

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted July 18, 2016 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

      Kim Stanley Robinson’s SF novel Icehenge presents a similar sort of puzzle. The first part of the book takes the form of a vivid first-person account of a political revolution by colonists on Mars. The middle section, set centuries later, turns the first part on its head by regarding it as an unreliable pseudo-historical artifact. (The final part jerks the rug out yet again, but I won’t say how to avoid spoilers.)

    • Posted July 19, 2016 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      Not to mention there’s *non*-fiction (sort of) with fictional characters introducing it. Kierkegaard (in my view the most honest Christian since the scientific revolution, or perhaps ever) does this, for example. (In a way, I guess Plato did too.)

  10. jeffery
    Posted July 18, 2016 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Yesterday, at a meeting where I group I belong to was discussing a fish-fry we were having in September, I said, “We have to make sure we reserve Riverview Park soon.” A few people looked a little puzzled, and finally one said, “You said Reservoir Park; don’t you mean, ‘Riverview’?” It was now MY turn to be puzzled, as I was CERTAIN I had said, “Riverview”; there was no reason for me to have named the other park, as we’ve never HAD any events there, in twenty years! I even thought I had heard myself say, “Riverview”- I hadn’t, and where that “brain-fart” came from, I haven’t a clue!
    I like to say, “One of the main discoveries of neuroscience is that our little brains don’t work nearly as well as we’d like to think they do.”

  11. leonkrier
    Posted July 18, 2016 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    While agreeing that introspection is an inadequate methodology for answering the issues posed in this posting and we must look to neuroscience for data, one must temper this enthusiasm which can jump to unwarranted conclusions. For example, the many years of enthusiasm for mirror neurons was profoundly disputed and refuted by Gregory Hickok (The Myth of Mirror Neurons). Also, Brainwashed by Sally Satel & Scott Lilienfeld is also a sober reading about neuroscience and its enthusiasts. Neuroscience is probably in its infancy or at best its early childhood. So much more is still need for mature “conclusions” to be made.

  12. Posted July 18, 2016 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    Just repeating the same old misunderstanding. Introspection reveals nothing, directly, about the nature of reality, but it does transform the nature of subjectivity, and the perception of reality is entirely and inevitably mediated by subjectivity.

    Actually, “Who am I?” turns out to be far more interesting that “What is?”. You currently believe that consciousness is personal, local and limited: this belief is false.

    • GBJames
      Posted July 19, 2016 at 6:25 am | Permalink

      Is that you, Deepak?

      • Posted July 19, 2016 at 7:12 am | Permalink

        Is that you Ken Ham?

    • Posted July 19, 2016 at 8:52 am | Permalink

      I’d agree that consciousness isn’t local in the sense that there’s no discrete “consciousness module” in the brain, but what do you mean by “limited”?

  13. Posted July 18, 2016 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    Introspection of course can’t produce reliable knowledge about the external world, but what other than introspection is available for assessing why you do the things you do?

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted July 19, 2016 at 7:01 am | Permalink

      Correlation with statistics on people’s behavior?

      • Posted July 19, 2016 at 8:17 am | Permalink

        What are you going to correlate a person’s behavior with, regarding feelings and motives, if not their own report based on introspection?

  14. Posted July 18, 2016 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    Interesting. Michael Graziano, a cognitive scientist, has been espousing a theory of consciousness that says that “consciousness” started by our interpreting the attention and awareness of other co-creatures. We decided they have a food object in mind, and then begin expanding our own reflections about our own consciousness. I think the attention slant is generally right, and then humans began complex language that both exploded such awareness as well as our reflections on that awareness. Thus we understand that we are attending/aware and create endless theories about such. I feel like Graziano and Rosenberg both struggle with how much to retain of our concept of consciousness and how much to completely abandon or eliminate it. At times, especially with Graziano, this creates confusion as they vacillate between consciousness “is this” and consciousness does not exist. The simple answer to that is that our modern day concept of consciousness has many facets, but both are eliminating some key thoughts of that concept, especially some of the qualia like ideas.

    Graziano at Aeon ( )

  15. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted July 19, 2016 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    A very illuminating article from Rosenberg. Thank you!

    Especially the consensus information of the most widely accepted psychologist’s theory of consciousness. A test, though not exclusive rejection of other theories, would be anesthetics that measurably decouples long range communication between parts of the brain.

    It clears up a lot of confusion of mine. I think. I have to think about it. =D

  16. Richard S
    Posted July 19, 2016 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Thanks very mucyh for this, Jerry. Rosenberg’s “Athiest’s Guide…” is probably the most interesting book I’ve ever read and I’m always on the lookout for more of his writings. About the only thing I don’t care for is the title. As he said himself at the end he would have used “On the Nature of things” if it hadn’t already been taken. And that describes it so much better.

  17. Posted July 19, 2016 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    “as many experiments have no shown”

    Typo alert!

  18. Posted July 20, 2016 at 2:49 pm | Permalink


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